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Photo credit: Chris Cuffaro / courtesy of Big Hassle Media

The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli Talks About ‘In Spades’, Prince, and the Critical Beat

Greg Dulli tells PopMatters that "nothing's excluded when it comes time to write a song... I am absolutely omnivorous."
Afghan Whigs
In Spades
Sub Pop

“I’m as influenced by Arvo Pärt as I am by Sly Stone.”

I.

In the ’90s, the Afghan Whigs were like “Johnny Yen” from the first verse of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. On record and onstage, their music radiated sex and substance abuse like uranium. Now, there was always more to the band than that. Frontman Greg Dulli’s hyper-masculine persona often undressed itself, flipping from purring come-ons to brutally honest confessions. Capable of an almost holy noir beauty, the Whigs fused Motown drama, Superfly-era funk, Led Zeppelin thump, and punk spirit into an instantly recognizable yet utterly original sound on albums like their 1994 breakthrough Gentlemen, and the 1996 masterpiece Black Love. In nearly every performance, they seemed to push themselves as far as they could go. So when the band called it quits in 2001, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. It seemed like they’d burned through what they had to say.

Today the Afghan Whigs are like Iggy Pop’s character in the second verse of “Lust for Life”: tired of “sleeping on the sidewalk/ no more beating my brains…with the liquor and the drugs”. That doesn’t mean the intensity is gone. In fact, the Whigs’ new album, In Spades, is as intense as it gets, but it’s propelled by determination and adventurousness instead of self-destruction and self-loathing. Rather than stay home with the sonic combinations of the past that worked so well, the Whigs got out of the house on 2014’s Do to the Beast. Their landscape has widened even more on In Spades. Sure, the foundational sounds are still present — the ass-shaking rhythms, first of all — but back in 1998 there’s no way you would have heard the bursts of jazz vocals that open In Spades‘ first track “Birdland”. Same goes for the ascension of “Toy Automatic”. And while the foundational Whigs themes — desire, love, loneliness, corruption, damnation — are still kicking, they’re complicated by memory, grief, and age.

At the center of this story is Greg Dulli: bandleader, singer, songwriter, guitar player — for my money, his distinctive, agitated rhythm guitar parts are too often overlooked — and, of course, the suave playboy (or the persona of one, at least) at the heart of the band’s image. Casanova’s still got game; just listen to “Demon in Profile” for your proof. But he’s changed, too. Dulli’s lyrics have become more allusive and pensive without losing a shred of their emotional and sensual urgency. His voice, including his falsetto, has never sounded richer. Dulli seems to be running on that second kind of “lust for life” Iggy Pop sang about, the kind that burns on a cleaner fuel so it can keep going, so it can keep discovering what life might be. As a result, the Afghan Whigs sound absolutely contemporary and vital.

So when it came time to speak with Dulli, I didn’t want to dwell on the past, didn’t want to talk about how great Black Love is, or how Usher got the Whigs to reunite in 2012. I wanted to talk about the here and now. On the heels of In Spades, these are the good ol’ days.

With one major exception.

The day after my conversation with Dulli, Afghan Whigs guitarist Dave Rosser passed away following an intense battle with inoperable colon cancer. A New Orleans native, Rosser joined Dulli’s post-Whigs band the Twilight Singers in 2006. He also played in the Gutter Twins, Dulli’s side project with Mark Lanegan, and worked with musicians including Joseph Arthur and Ani DiFranco. Rosser played on 2014’s Do to the Beast and the subsequent tour. He’d nearly finished his work on In Spades when he was diagnosed last autumn.

The Afghan Whigs put together two benefit concerts in late 2016, one in New Orleans, the other in L.A., to help pay for his medical expenses. When Rosser was unable to tour this year, the band didn’t try to find someone to take his place. Dulli told me during our interview, “No one can do what Rosser does but Rosser.”

Dulli posted a video clip on Twitter this past May that, for me, captures Rosser’s musical contribution to the Afghan Whigs. It’s just 20 seconds of him laying down an electric guitar overdub on In Spades‘ “Copernicus”. About 50 seconds into the song, the verse is transitioning to the two-line chorus. Engineer Mike Napolitano cues Rosser, who drags his slide up the guitar’s neck into a pinched yell. The slide dips, rises again, and slowly eases back down the frets until it resolves into snarling feedback. It’s a simple part but it’s got teeth and a nasty texture; it’s understated but absolutely crucial to the drama of this moment in the song.

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Rosser reposted the video clip on his public Facebook page. “A great ‘In Spades’ memory,” he wrote. “The day after I got home from the first surgery & diagnosis in October, I was so hungry to play guitar, I took the ferry, walked a mile to Mike Napolitano’s place and laid overdubs for a few hours. The next day I was freakin’ SORE. But oh so worth it!”

When I spoke with Dulli, he’d just returned from visiting Rosser in New Orleans. At one point, I asked how the songs from In Spades had changed during the band’s brief European tour in late May and early June. After replying that they’d sped up, “As soon you get on stage, everything is faster, Dulli added, “And certainly we’ve had to cover for the absence of Dave Rosser, which has been a heavy task. But he’s spiritually with us every night.”

How, I asked, had Dulli dealt with being on tour during such an emotional time?

“Luckily, in the context of the group, we’re all Dave’s brothers,” Dulli said of the band comprised of guitarist Jon Skibic, multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, Patrick Keeler on drums, and bassist John Curley, the only other original member of the Whigs. “If I’m with any group of people who understands how I feel,” Dulli said, “I’m with the ultimate group of people who understands how I feel. And we’re all there for each other.”

The Afghan Whigs will return to the road in August for a series of dates in Europe and then tour the US in September. Before any of that, they still plan to hit the studio in July to begin work on a new album. Asked if we’ve heard any of the new songs live, Dulli said no. “You don’t wanna jam people with too much,” he added. “A bunch of these songs on In Spades aren’t even a year old yet. I’m trying to give them their space.”

At the top of our conversation, I confessed that I’d taken this assignment partly so I could talk with Dulli about a musician we both love: Prince.

“Right on,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

II.

Have you heard the new Purple Rain deluxe version?

I have not. I just saw that it came out but I haven’t seen what’s on it. I’m gonna be shocked if I don’t already have what’s on it.

I read that you were in high school when you first heard Prince. Do you remember what song first grabbed you?

I would bet money it was whatever the first single on 1999 was, either “1999” or “Little Red Corvette”. That album totally blew my mind and I went to the tour. It was Prince, the Time, and Vanity 6. He had the bed on the third level. He took Jill Jones up there. He jacked off his guitar. Laser jizz came out. I remember telling my friend, “I’m gonna name my band Laser Jizz.”

You never followed up on that? One of your early bands?

Never followed up on it. Still a great band name. But after that show I went back and bought Dirty Mind, Controversy, and the first two records. I was all-in at that point.

Can you put into words how Prince has influenced your songwriting, how you hear music, how you think about albums?

I’ll tell you, once I saw him, and definitely after Purple Rain, I got incredibly serious about writing the best songs I could, learning my instrument, and being myself, you know? Truly following my own vibe and being an individual. That’s what he taught me more than anything else. Trying to copy Prince… I mean, I have so many other influences and I mash them all together, just like I’m sure he did. Trying to be anything other than yourself, that’s a futile measure. So that more than anything.

But he was the greatest performer I ever saw, one of the greatest guitar players I ever saw, one of the best onstage dancers I ever saw. He was the total package, the absolute total package. I never saw anyone who could do all of the things he did and do them all at once. My number one forever. I can’t imagine anyone else knocking him out.

What do you think is the most underrated Prince song or overlooked album?

Parade is wildly underrated. Parade is top three for me. It’s the most unhinged and unlike him, all the Euro influences that came through. So many great songs on there. “Do U Lie?” — that’s a very underrated song. “Anotherloverholenyohead”. Everybody goes toward “Kiss”, which is a great song, but not even my favorite song on that album.

“Girls and Boys”, “Mountains”, “New Position”…

“New Position” is sick. That is a fucking jam. They should play that at every DJ night, every night. The ballads on there, of course. And how he ultimately became Christopher Tracy…[he] probably foretold his own demise. In an elevator, no less.

Did his passing make you rethink anything about his music, or your own music, your life, your career?

I think of it as my livelihood, not as my career. It’s something that I do because I have to do it. I have to write songs, I have to play music. It’s who I am. So that stands alone. But it was like losing a family member to me. He was a part of my life from the first time I heard the first song and to this very day. Absolutely one of my favorite people who has ever lived.

I was trying to find my copy of the “Going to Town” extended EP with the live version where you start with “Housequake”.

I’ll go so far as to say the “Housequake” beat indirectly formed that song. It wasn’t a wide river to cross to get from “Housequake” to “Going to Town”.

You have an attention to groove that a lot of rock artists don’t. In the way just the beat in “New Position” grabs you, there’s a bunch of Whigs songs that are like that, including on the new record.

I love rhythm. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, I listen to a lot of R&B. It’s gonna seep in there. I started out as a drummer.

Really.

Oh yeah, drums were my first instrument.

When you’re writing a song, are you sitting down at a [drum] set at all?

Sometimes I make beats and sing along to them. There’s several songs from the last couple records written that were written around beats. “I Am Fire” was. “Matamoros”, “Parked Outside”, “Arabian Heights”, “Copernicus”. The beat’s incredibly important to me.

When you were younger, especially beginning with Up In It and Congregation, did you feel self-conscious about the influence of what was historically African-American music on the Whigs’ sound? Did you ever catch shit for appropriating black music as a white dude?

We were hardly the first or last to do that. [laughter] So, you know, guilt free. I don’t see color, I see inspiration. And certainly, the experience that any person or group of people has that informs a style or genre: mad respect for all people and their experiences and struggles through life. All people. But when you get to music, man, you are there to inspire yourself. I take that job very seriously. I’m as influenced by Arvo Pärt as I am by Sly Stone.

On Arvo Pärt, Lyrics, David Lynch and more…

How has Arvo Pärt influenced you?

You know who turned me on to him was a girlfriend of mine back in the late ’90s. Just the space and the patience of the music, the abject beauty of it. Just slow and does its own thing. The modern group that kind of embodies his sound would be maybe Sigur Rós. They’d be comparable to that. Here’s a group that’s not in a hurry to get where they’re going. It’s going to be beautiful and you’re going to be absorbed into it. But my grandparents and aunts and uncles, they all listened to country music and hillbilly music, and I love that stuff, too. Big Top Halloween, there’s plenty of hillbilly-style music on there. And there’s hillbilly music on Up In It. Nothing and everything inspires.

Nothing’s off the table, nothing’s excluded?

Nothing’s excluded when it comes time to write a song or get off on something. I am absolutely omnivorous.

In Spades has this really broad musical palette. Is that something you were thinking of as the songs were coming together or did it come from working in the studio?

Well, I just write songs and if I start to have an affection for one of them, then I start to invest in them, and if I don’t, I cast them off. So these songs were super organic. I think five of the songs we did in a week — laid them down, arranged and everything. And then the next five took about a year to figure out. And then there were another five on top of that that didn’t make it. So, I just put together the songs that I liked the most and that fit together the best.

It’s the shortest record I’ve ever been a part of. The songs are very concise; there’s not a lot of fucking around. They’re very hit-it-and-quit-it. That’s made for an interesting live experience because I can move the parts around these songs and still do a show that feels expansive.

The lyrics seem different compared to your other albums. They feel different. Is it true that you wrote most of the lyrics late in the process?

You know what, I always do, though. I’ll do a riff, turn the riff into an arrangement, sing a vocal melody on top of the arrangement, and then take that melody and listen to it for days and start to fit words into the melody. It’s very phonetic for me. Vowel sounds are incredibly important. This [album] in particular is, I think, a little more impressionistic than the other ones. Not purposely abstract, but I really went with the rhythm of the word over trying to tell a story or trying to explain everything to the listener, or even to myself, but just kind of trust in the cadence instead.

“Impressionistic” makes a lot of sense to me. The lyrics pop out like bursts of thought. There’s a line in “Toy Automatic”: “My lie/ Had been cast to the dark side of — do or die”. It almost sounds like there’s an edit there, like you cut off the line at “of” and put another phrase on top of it.

No, I just doubled “do or die”, but I can see why that would sound like an edit, and I think that’s kind of cool. I doubled a bunch of lines in that song and did it for impact, and obviously that one caught your attention.

The opening of “Birdland” is easily one of the most surprising opening tracks on your records. The title refers to your home, right, around Cincinnati?

It’s a neighborhood in Ross, Ohio. That’s where I went to school. I had a series of dreams last year that put me in Birdland. That’s where the title for “Oriole” came from; Oriole is a street in Birdland. But these are fleeting glimpses from my subconscious. A lot of times, most times, I will name a song and that name will never appear in the song. The names are really more like chapters of the book or scenes from the film or whatever. A lot of times a title gives me the permission to lock into the landscape, and then I can start to do my thing. And a lot of times, I’ll live up to the title. In my mind, you know?

No one else knows what I’m thinking, and sometimes I don’t either. The act of naming a song is a big step for me.

“Birdland” refers to Charlie Parker, too, right?

It certainly does but not in this context. I’m certainly a big fan of Charlie Parker and very aware of the club, but the song itself refers only to the neighborhood.

I guess I wondered because of the opening’s jazz vibe. The stacked vocals also remind me of the opening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”.

I’ll tell you, the vocal influence is Jimmy Scott. That’s who I’m singing like. I did that vocal off the cuff, never wrote those words down, I freestyled it into the mic. And as I was singing, I was like, “Who am I singing like?” And when I got done and listened to it, I was like, “Oh, it’s Jimmy Scott.” In my opinion, it’s a channeling of Jimmy Scott, who I had the privilege of watching perform once, and I actually got to meet him. He was such a lovely person. One of my favorite moments ever meeting a musician.

I’d say meeting Jimmy Scott and meeting Terry Callier are at the top of my list of two of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had of meeting a singer I love.

Another lyric that jumped out at me from In Spades is on “The Spell”, “In time, the revelator comes for thee”. That’s one of those where the bottom just drops out in terms of American music history. It goes back to the Bible, of course, but it made me think of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator”. Where did that phrase come from?

Probably him. And I wanna say… does Gillian Welch have an album called Time (the Revelator)?

Yep. I was going to ask.

So I’m sure I have that, and I’m sure it seeped into my subconscious, and outside it popped.

That lyric is part of an American gothic, almost folkloric thread in the album. I saw on Twitter that you were excited about Twin Peaks coming back.

I referenced the old Twin Peaks. I haven’t seen the new one and for whatever reason have not been compelled to watch it. I have no idea what’s going on in it, don’t know if I will watch it. That’s not an insult, I just feel like I already had that experience. Maybe I will watch it someday, but I haven’t been compelled yet.

I guess I was thinking of a connection between Twin Peaks and the gothic, mysterious elements in your music. I was watching the “Oriole” video, and the things that happen in that video — the young woman and the cult in the woods — could be from Twin Peaks.

Right? I can tell you the inspirations that I discussed with Amy [Hood], who directed the video, were Valley of the Dolls, Rosemary’s Baby, and this movie that came out last year called The Witch. Those were some of the visual inspirations. But, the first season of Twin Peaks, one of the greatest television experiences I’ve ever had. David Lynch is a genius, Mark Frost is a genius. That cast was perfect, all the music, the Badalamenti music was perfect. I think the reason I haven’t watched it is because after I saw Fire Walk with Me, I was like, “Ehh.”

I’d say the new series is more like Fire Walk with Me plus Eraserhead and Lost Highway.

I very well may watch it. I just haven’t bit on this right away. But I don’t always do that. It took me years to watch The Wire. I waited until Mad Men was over and then I watched all of it. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, you know? I do watch TV but I’m very particular and peculiar in when and what I watch. I have to be in the right place to watch something and give it my attention.

That makes me think of the different ways people engage with music now. Do you think people don’t listen to whole albums like they used to? Basically, do you think technology has changed how we engage with music?

Well, of course, yes. But when I was young, I listened to singles. And then when I got turned onto whatever album that captured my attention as a whole, once I started seeing an arc over an album, I was like, “Oh wow, this is a whole new art form.” In that people pick and choose the songs that they listen to. Nothing new there. And certainly the ability to do it in streaming and all that stuff, that’s absolutely changed life in immeasurable ways.

But I think when people talk about short attention spans, I think, “Eh.” You know? It’s just a new way that people have short attention spans. It’s not, oh, short attention spans just got invented. I think you like what you like, and if someone can show you another way that you like, you try that, too.

A friend of mine who’s a musician has a theory that bands should be putting out shorter albums these days.

Right.

I don’t know if it’s because of short attention spans or what. You’ve mentioned liking [fellow SubPop artists] Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and their stuff’s pretty short, like slightly extended Eps.

Well, French Press is an EP, but they have long songs.

But Talk Tight is maybe a half hour long.

Well, like I was saying earlier, In Spades is 36, but it’s ten songs. I saw some people bitch about that, and I was like, well, look at most of Marvin Gaye’s records, look at the last Lynyrd Skynyrd record. Purple Rain has eight songs on it. I had five more songs [for In Spades], and I even liked three of them. But, just putting them on there just because I had them… They didn’t fit the vibe. I’m trying to create a vibe. So I’ve edited it for you. And if I feel like you need to hear the next three, you will hear them, but in a different state.

Speaking of videos, how did you get Har Mar Superstar involved in the video for “Demon in Profile”?

Well, first of all, he’s a good friend of mine. Super-talented guy. I knew that since Phil [Harder] was directing it, and he lives in Minneapolis, it was a way I could be off to the side and not have to be in it. [laughs]

I feel like the video’s playing off your image and persona as this ladies man and suave performer — taking that and turning it around.

Oh sure. Absolutely, there was some winking going on. [Laughs]

Have you ever felt like people have been too focused on that persona and that aspect of your performance and missed other parts of what you’re trying to say or do?

What people think and say about you, you can’t control. You’d be very powerful if you had that power.

That reminds me to ask how you’re coping in a time of Trump. He seems obsessed with controlling his image and what people say about him.

[Laughs] That’s not really working out too well for him.

He seems like proof of how that obsession can go completely wrong.

Yeah, man. When he talks, it’s like the teacher on Charlie Brown now. My eyes glaze over, you know? But hey, you get what you deserve.

Do you ever feel compelled to be more explicitly political in your music?

No. I am in my own way. I say things all the time. There’s plenty of opinion on his page. I’m not Woody Guthrie, know what I mean?

How was playing at the Apollo? I know you were looking forward to that.

Beautiful room, beautiful part of town, wonderful staff, so welcoming and friendly. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Great show, great crowd, great room. I’ll never forget it. I hope I get to do it again someday.

Could you feel the history in the place?

Yeah, but you know what, I can at the Fillmore. I could when we played Madison Square Garden 20-something years ago, you know? Wherever you go, there’s someone that’s been there before you. You can feel it. Like the first time I played First Avenue, I knew where I was standing. Every time I’ve gone back, same feeling. It was mythologized to me as a teenager and I’ve carried that with me to this very day. We’re playing there again this September and I can’t wait.

I’m planning to catch the show in Cincinnati.

It’s a really good band, man. We’re playing great shows. Even on an off night, we’re better than most. And if we’re on, no one’s better.

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